No matter what other roles we play outside the kitchen – butcher, baker, even candlestick maker – We are all unrelenting defenders as to what we allow onto the hallowed ground of our kitchens. We pride ourselves on being on top of the cooking game, -reading, prowling, discovering new techniques, hunting down the very finest of ingredients – leaving us exhausted yet ready for more. Does that make us snobs? Perhaps staunch enthusiasts would be a more fitting characterization.
For those who consider cooking as much fun as say, cleaning the bathtub, the strange peculiarity of cooks makes good gift giving difficult at best. Add to that the profusion of ‘must have’ gadgets on the market and you may be ready to give up. What’s a well intentioned non-cook gift giver to do? Read on to find my top ten gift recommendations for the snobby cook in your life and you’ll face your next gift decision with renewed confidence.
1. Hunt down fresh spices and herbs
Cooks don’t need much of an excuse to buy more things their kitchen, but when it comes to buying fresh spices and herbs we are granted permission from the culinary gods to spend without guilt. Despite your grandmother’s insistence that her dill, which hasn’t seen a pot of soup since faux wood paneled kitchens were in style, is just fine, herbs and spices should be used in a reasonable amount of time. Give them a year, or sometimes mere months, and they will develop off flavors.
Spices are more than mere flavor components – they are smells, color, and sensory catalysts that help give the food we create meaning. But for me, more than any of that, they are just plain fun. With a literal world of spices, there is always more to discover. Treat your cook to their favorite herbs and spices but include unusual flavors well. Why purchase ordinary supermarket cinnamon when you can choose the alluring and pungent cinnamon from Vietnam or the rich and spicy Chinese Tung Hing Cassia cinnamon? Your attention to detail in choosing will not go unnoticed or unappreciated by any cook worth their salt.
Where to Go: www.thespicehouse.com is widely known for their unwavering commitment to the highest quality of their spices and herbs from all over the world. They also carry premixed mixed spices, whole and ground versions of most spices, as well as a variety of gift boxes.
2. See out your local star
When I visited Idaho, a state not particularly known for its culinary underbelly, I became, much due to repeated exposure, fascinated by potatoes. Seeming to have stumbled onto a secret conspiracy of potato farmers, I found the Idaho potatoes hiding out in the most creative forms – potato muffins, potato vodka, potato candy (in original and peanut butter) potato wine, something called ‘spud fudge”, and finally the form I found most irresistible-thick cut Idahoan potato chips double dipped in bittersweet chocolate. Unable to turn away a food that combines my 2 favorite food groups, I bought 10 bags. They stood proof of a confection perfectly balanced between salty and sweet but proving most of all that no matter where you are, the perfect gourmet gift may be in your own backyard.
Every area has a local culinary star waiting to be discovered by our loved ones who live faraway. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with an abundance of fresh produce but are especially proud of our Willamette Valley wines. Maybe your area prides itself as the maple syrup capital, or claims to have the best pig pickin’ sauce south of the Mason Dixon line. Take another look at your backyard and share a bit of local culinary color.
Where to go: www.localharvest.org pride themselves on being the leading informational resource for buying foods made locally. With a well-indexed and easy to use search engine, this site provides an easy way to put you in touch with farmer’s markets, small farms, and other local food sources.
3. Create a Personalized Gift Basket
The very best cook’s gift I ever received was a basket of handpicked international salts from my husband: Red salts, black salts, salts from Portugal, salts from France, as well as a few that I couldn’t, and still can’t, pronounce. I spent the remainder of the week tasting, trying, and excitedly subjecting my kind and patient neighbors to blind taste tests. What made this gift so close to my heart is that no-one but him could predict just how fired up I would get over a gift basket of salt.
Personalized baskets truly brings to life the idiom “it is the thought the matters.”
You could buy some ready made basket, but too often I find the quality of items sacrificed – traded in for pretty bows and sparkly ribbons. Walk right past those display tables in favor of carefully selected items that will gratify your cook. Perhaps they are chocoholics who would welcome a variety of European chocolates to perfect their pot de crÃ?Â¨me. Or perhaps a basket of organic fruit preserves and spreads for the cook who is unwavering about all things natural. No one can resist a personalized gift. Not even a food snob.
Where to go: www.igourmet.com carries a wide array of specialty foods including over 600 imported cheeses, top quality meats, cheese, wines, chocolates, just about every gourmet food known. Try using their nifty search feature that allows you to browse for ingredients by county of origin. How cool is that?
4. Buy Books for Cooks
When not happily puttering in the kitchen, you can often find me curled up with a hot chocolate and a stack of cookbooks. We foodies, as we sometimes call ourselves, read cookbooks like others read novels, pouring over pages in our spare moments, lost in culinary mysteries and thrill of gastronomical epiphanies. But precisely what makes books for cooks appealing lies in their ability to satisfy our craving for a new knowledge – a guttural need if you will – to be constantly learning.
Books are not mere collections of recipes, but of history and heritage. As you set out to find the perfect book, be leery of eye catching coffee table books with big glossy pictures but little substance, and don’t overlook the writings found within a humble paperback. Consider the entire range of books that relate to food such as regional books, books on cuisines, how to books, and my personal favorite, The New Food Lover’s Companion: Comprehensive Definitions of Nearly 6000 Food, Drink, and Culinary Terms by Sharon Tyler Herbst which is just about the most handy thing in my kitchen, next to my knives.
Where to go:www.Powells.com carries an amazing on-line and in store selection including used books, rare books, and enough new releases to captivate a cook’s curiosity for years to come.
5. Knives need sharpeners
Knives are considered extensions of the cook’s hands, used at every meal to carve, cut, cleave and chop. But what is most often overlooked, from the perspective of the non-cook, is the importance of caring for these precision tools.
Contrary to what may seem like common sense, a sharp knife is a safer knife. Sharp knives slips less and require less force creating a more efficient and safer tool for the cook. Most cooks, myself included, will not argue that a good professional knife sharpening yields the best results for maintaining their sharpness and edge, but there are still plenty of options for caring for them at home.
Depending on the needs, temperament, and abilities of the cook, you will want to consider one of the three standard types of knife sharpeners.
1) Staged sharpeners, come in both manual and electric versions, and have one, two, or three slots. Since these types guide the blade against a default angle, allowing those cooks who may have difficulty controlling the angle of the knife for correct sharpening to produce consistent angles. The debate rages in kitchens as to whether that default angle is the correct angle for every knife, but almost all can agree that no other sharpener compares for ease of use.
2) Your second option is a whetstone or sometimes called an oil stone. Sharpening stones require a steady hand in drawing the knife blade the stone at a consistent angle. Many Stones require lubricants such as buck honing oil so you may want to include a bottle or two with your gift. These provide the closest thing to professional sharpening but require the greatest skill.
3) Steels are probably the most familiar of sharpeners, though technically, they are not sharpeners at all. A steel does not sharpen a blade. Rather, it removes small burrs from a knife, pulling the edge back into alignment. They are commonly found in two forms: stainless, or non stainless. Stainless steels are less likely to rust, but is less efficient than the non stainless in sharpening. The non-stainless is more susceptible to rust, but is more efficient in realigning the blade. Both versions take patience to use correctly, but with skill and practice, are necessary for weekly or even daily touch ups.
Where to go: www.knife-depot.com offers over 200 different knife sharpeners including accessories. With free shipping on most of their items as well as helpful articles to help any chef ahem, hone their skills, they are the best spot for your sharpening needs and gifts.
6. No can resist a gadget
Browsing through the latest issue of “Kitchen Gadgets Monthly” we food snobs think nothing of turning our nose up at products that promise to help us in the kitchen, smug in self satisfaction that our skills are above the need for such trappings. However, we have been spotted falling into trance like states when entering kitchen stores only to emerge when our arms are full enough to disguise our identity. Food snobs or not, we are not invulnerable to the genius of good old-fashioned marketing.
When cooking experts promise us that there is a better, faster, easier, way to peel mince, dice or prepare, we want to experience it for ourselves – immediately. That being said, you as the gadget giver, must choose wisely or risk adding to our kitchen graveyard – where all well intended gadgets go to die. No bought off late night television turnip peelers, no electric potato bakers, no $100.00 waffle flippers (yes they exist) and under no circumstances should you purchase anything solely for the word “Bam!” emblazoned across the front. Gadgets are, after all, about practicality.
Many of the latest kitchen gadgets have embraced the recent trend of ergonomics by adding larger handles, better materials, and bigger buttons. With design not aimed at functionality per se, but for comfort, they’ll make any cook smile.
Where to go: www.thegadgetsource.com carries hundreds of items covering the needs of nearly every kitchen endeavor – enough to quell any cook’s secret longings for new gadgetry.
7. All cooks need storage
One thing that all cooks and aspiring chefs share in common is a kitchen two sizes too small. No matter how large it appeared when we moved in, no matter the pantry size, we cooks shamefully admit our stuff spills into our basements, gets stored in our attics, and stuffed into our dining room nooks. Solve this problem with a little added organization, even a little, and you will make a lifetime friend. (And a good cook is a very good friend to have).
When kitchen space seems already maximized, sometimes the only way to gain more room requires taking advantage of empty space. Hanging pots and pan racks combine both practicality and beauty and come in enough styles to fit dÃ?Â©cor from shabby chic country kitchens to modern condominium galley kitchens, and every style in between. Hanging racks from the back of doors also reclaims often overlooked space while providing a hiding spot for those less aesthetically pleasing items such as plastic bags and Little Debbie Cakes.
Sometimes all it takes to gain more space is a little less drawer chaos. Simple drawer dividers and containers can be an epiphany for those fighting with a jumbled drawer. Removing spices from cabinets in favor of under the cabinet mounting racks are perfect for clearing counter clutter.
Where to go: www.stacksandstacks.com has a full section of kitchen organization helpers. Can’t find what you need? Take advantage of their “Ask Our Organizer” feature or live help chat to track down the perfect item.
8. Show off you own culinary skills
Perhaps you fancy yourself a food enthusiast yourself. Even among us who claim to know what we are doing in the kitchen more often than not, the idea of sharing homemade gifts with someone can be intimidating. With other gifts, if they are not well received, the weight of the responsibility can be brushed off to the manufacturer. But when offering a home made creation, our egos can crumble as fast as a hot sugar cookie. Don’t be intimidated. If you are convinced that your garlic pickles are the best made in the western hemisphere, then by all means don’t hesitate to share them this holiday. Even if your creations fall short of your fussy aunt Martha’s standards so what? Foodies appreciate sincere effort, even if Aunt Martha doesn’t.
I love the causal informality and the innate warmness and individuality of giving gifts from the kitchen. I’ve turned out Cherry cordial and butter cookies for the cherry fanatic I know, hot chocolate mix and almond biscotti for a chocolate devotee, even a ready made heat-n-serve meal (complete with dessert of course) to a couple who seemed to inevitably have unexpected guests during the holidays.
Where to go:www.myownlabels.com will help you extend the personalization even more by dressing up your fare with customizable labels. They offer a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Who could help but be pleased to receive a package with their name on it?
9. Cookware of high quality is a must
With a flood of pots and pans to choose from, the process of choosing for someone else can be daunting. Whether you are helping your friend to upgrade their collection or too simply add to it, you can’t go wrong when you invest in high quality.
How do you assure you are buying quality cookware? In a nutshell, you want pieces to meet the following criteria:
Ã?Â·Constructed or sandwiched with a highly conductible metal such as copper or aluminum.
Ã?Â·The conductible metal should extend up the side of the piece rather than just the bottom.
Ã?Â·Have sturdy handles such as those that are riveted or cast from the same mold as the pan.
Ã?Â·Offer a lifetime warranty.
Keep these things in mind, and you’ll be assured of top quality cookware they’ll be able to pass down to their children.
All this attention to quality often carries a price-Pieces of leading brand pans, such as the much lauded All-clad, will cost upward of $100.00. A much overlooked and less costly alternative is simple cast iron. Besides being easily found for under $10 per piece Cast Iron pans meet our ‘quality’ checklist above, go from stove top to oven, and will last a lifetime; making them a great investment at even twice the price. With prices so low, you could purchase an entire set without breaking the bank.
Where to go: www.amazon.com carries high quality cookware sets and pieces including brands well regarded for top quality such as All-Clad, Lodge Cast Iron, and Caphalon. Keep your eye our for free gifts with purchase bonuses and discounted companion pieces.
10. Don’t forget the bakers
Its been said that cooking is an art, but baking is a science. I don’t consider myself a baker nor for that matter, a scientist. So it is with great curiosity that I have observed these scientists of pastry in their kitchens. I have found them to be mysteriously and inherently fussy creatures, gliding around their kitchens as they consider whether the day’s humidity is low enough for making croissants or which of their brioche molds would yield the best results. It has lead me to see that bakers consider different factors in the kitchen than us cooks, and naturally require a different set of tools.
There are pans, bench scrapers, spatulas, scales, and measuring devices all precisely devised for the special needs of bakers. Because we non-bakers find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, we may easily misjudge the needs of our recipients despite our best intentions. Thankfully, many high end kitchen stores, including those found on-line, offer customer service centers that will happily answer questions such as “Can my friend use pie weights to weigh anything or can they only weigh pies?” or “My friend doesn’t have a bench in their kitchen – Do they still need a bench scraper?” Have no fear, these folks have heard it all, so take advantage of their knowledge to be sure that your selection will be well received.
Where to go: www.surlatable.com carries enough specialty items to bring a baker overwhelming joy, and offer knowledgeable and friendly customer service making it easy to find the perfect gift for even the most experienced of bakers.